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David Bergelson | from:Yiddish

Impoverished

Translated by : Golda Werman

Image: Marc Chagall, "Rain", 1911

I

When the waste and dreariness of her life become too much for Zivia, the younger and more embittered of the two unmarried Pozis sisters, she stops eating and washing. Wearing only her shift and a bandana tied around her unkempt hair, she attacks the house in a frenzy of cleaning, sweating and panting as she works. The large salon that no one ever uses now gets special attention. With the greatest care she wipes the yellowing wallpaper and scrubs the walls and the balcony until they shine. When someone speaks to her, she doesn’t respond; if she is called into the dining room for dinner, she flies into a rage.

Often she won’t even drink a glass of tea and stays in her unmade bed all day, sometimes two days, sobbing pitifully and crying out in desperation, “God in Heaven, we’re rotting here before we’re even in our shrouds! This is a living death!”

The older sister, Rochele, who never leaves her side when she’s like this, takes it all to heart. She is thirty-four and short, with a delicate mustache above her upper lip. Through the open window she sees their neighbour, the cooper’s wife, straining to pick up a tub full of laundry. Her dress is torn and hitched up front and she tries to balance the tub on her high belly while she carps continuously at a grubby little girl who keeps getting underfoot. Rochele can see her thick, swollen lips move up and down but can’t hear what she’s saying. There are tears in Rochele’s eyes and she bites her knuckles, unable to stop thinking about Zivia even for a minute. “Dear God in Heaven, what does Zivia want from my life? Zivia, Zivia, do you know what you’re doing? Zivia!”

As she repeats these words she remembers all the other times. It mostly happens after the Pentecost holiday when summer is approaching and the thick walls of the old neglected house begin to sweat and smell musty. The house is sinking into the damp ground and the bricks, which have become spotted with white lime, give off the sour-sweet odor of clay being baked in the factory.

This is the time of day when the house is quiet and cool. Old Mr. Pozis, the father of the household, lies on the sofa in the dining room. He is blind. His sightless eyes are covered with a white film and he blinks nervously when he hears Zivia sobbing in her room. “What is she crying about in there?” he wonders.

Bored, he scratches his head and his gray beard and lets out a long, loud sigh through his twisted mouth as he mutters weakly, “Oh, dear God and Father, King of the Universe.”

The old man is waiting for Yekusiel, the bookbinder and inept beadle of the Sadegerer Synagogue, to come join him in a glass of tea. As they pass the time of day together the beadle is sure to bring up the subject of his daughters. “They have no luck, poor things.” Then he’ll report the news around town and finally the conversation will turn to himself, Kalman Pozis, and his former business affairs. Again he will tell him the story of the time he bought an entire forest for a song – the Zavalina, it was called. It seems like only yesterday.

“We cut down a lot of trees in the Zavalina – for twelve years we cut down trees and made a lot of money. You know, Yekusiel, Kalman Pozis was considered a very clever man once, very clever. But when the wheel turned it was his wife Leah who became the smart one; she had rich relatives. Now his children think he’s a fool.”

“Eh – what will Yekusiel say to that?”

Yekusiel is a nice man and not unintelligent, but he doesn’t talk much. He has a handsome flaxen beard, a close-cut mustache and large, impressive flaxen eyebrows. Entering the room with an amiable expression on his face, he smiles at old Pozis from a distance. “There’s nothing much new, Reb Kalman. What can be new? Things are bad; it’s hard and bitter to be so poor on this long summer day.”

All at once the old man is flustered; is Yekusiel referring to himself or to the old, impoverished Pozis? For a while he just lies there feeling worthless and blinking his opaque, sightless eyes in embarrassment.

“Sit down, Yekusiel.”

“Thank you, Reb Kalman.”

A pause.

“Things were different once, eh, Yekusiel?”

“Yes, they were different.”

“Those days are gone now, Yekusiel.”

“Gone, Reb Kalman.”

The old man is lost in thought.

“How old are you, Yekusiel?”

No answer.

The old man would like to know what the world looks like and what Yekusiel looks like, too – he hasn’t seen anything for twelve years.

“Yekusiel,” he asks cautiously, like a person who is walking on tiptoe, “do you have gray hair yet, Yekusiel?”

But Yekusiel is gone. He could feel that something was wrong and that there was no chance of getting a glass of tea today, so he left early. Old Pozis is alone in the large dining room again, listening to Zivia’s melancholy weeping. He is bored, bored to death with waiting.

In the late afternoon heat the shadows grow longer on the paved streets of the shtetl. The mailman, sweltering in the scorching sun, might be stopping at the house at this very moment to leave precisely one hundred and fifty rubles and the usual note: “On orders from your son I am sending herewith, etc.”

The envelope is from Shmiel, his only son, who owns several distilleries somewhere near Yekaterinaslav and who sends a monthly check for living expenses. The mailman never comes except to bring Shmiel’s letter once a month. The summer days seem endless – and Zivia is crying. The old man scratches his gray head and beard and with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in Heaven – oh, dear God.”

II

Something happened. There is a letter from the rich son, Shmiel, inviting Zivia to come for a visit. His daughter-in-law added a few words, too: “Zivia won’t regret it! And she needn’t worry if she doesn’t have the proper clothes.”

It’s as clear as day – they have a match for her. And there’s no doubt that if Shmiel and Broche like the prospective groom he’s sure to be somebody special, someone who’s looking for character and family and not just a pretty face.

The old man lies on the sofa, feeling gratified and blinking his opaque eyes in excitement. “What then? Wasn’t it clear all along that Shmiel would find her a groom?”

He’s beside himself with curiosity about the prospective bridegroom and even more about the groom’s father. There must be a few words about this in Shmiel’s letter and he tries to coax the girls into reading it to him.

“Rochele, darling, tell me again how many distilleries Shmiel has,” he pleads, knowing that the girls think the world of their brother. Over and over again, he repeats, “As a young man he was a Hasid – right after the wedding he went to see the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now they say that he wears kid gloves and shakes hands with rich noblemen. He’s bound to have a thick black beard, Rochele, don’t you think? A thick black beard.”

The girls are convinced that it was their late mother, Leah, who had the brains in the family and that their blind father is a fool. They don’t say a word to him about the family and respectability and their expressions seem to say “Just look at whom we have to answer to.”

For a few days the house is filled with unrestrained excitement. The local seamstress, who used to be Rochele’s friend, is always in Zivia’s room, sewing and offering advice. She has three children already and her face is covered with brown spots from her fourth pregnancy. Raised in the city by a rich step-grandfather, she is self-confident and talks as if she’s an expert in the art of attracting grooms. She claims to know some useful charms and herbs for the purpose.

Finally, Zivia is ready to leave. A hired driver waits in front of the house with the luggage and Rochele is there, too, her pathetic, slightly crossed eyes brimming with tears of yearning and repressed envy. She pats the cushion: “Zivia will be comfortable sitting here.”

But four weeks later Zivia is back. She is exhausted and her face is sunburned, as if she’d taken the cure. Now her heart is filled with even more despair and she has a terrible headache on top of it from the long night without sleep in the coach.

Stepping off the carriage with a smile, she seems happy to be home. The house has a holiday air about it, there’s a clean yellow tablecloth on the dining room table and the family is drinking tea. Zivia, frowning, complains of a migraine; the week-long celebration at Shmiel’s rich father-in-law’s house was very noisy.

“Oh my, oh my,” she moans, “it was ear-splitting. Whenever the door creaks I think that the klezmer band is still scratching away.”

The old man lies on the sofa at the side of the room, his blind eyes blinking quickly.

“Well,” he asks, “and how are things in their house? He’s rich, eh? They run a lavish house, eh?”

No one mentions last month’s letter from Shmiel. Zivia sleeps late, but when she wakes up she can still hear the roaring in her ears. Every time the door squeaks she imagines she hears the band playing or the train whistling.

The summer days are long but the house is cool. Lonely and bored, the old man yawns as he lies on the couch in the dining room, scratching his head and pulling on his beard. And with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in heaven – oh, dear God.”

It seems as if nothing will ever happen in this house again.

III

It is just before sunset on a clear, beautiful day late in summer. The old man is lying on his couch, waiting for his daughter to help him into his Sabbath gabardine and take him out for a walk. Not long ago his old partner, Yisroel Kitiver, died and left a lot of money to his grandson, Notte Hirsh. Now he’s busy refurbishing his grandfather’s house and extending a balcony into the market.

Blind old Pozis imagines himself standing there in his Sabbath gabardine, pointing his stick at the house and saying: “Look here, Notte Hirsh – I remember that there was a deep ditch in the very place where you’re planning to extend the balcony. You’d better dig down and see if the foundation will support it.”

And the people from the shtetl who are watching say, “Well, what do you think? He knows what he’s talking about. Kalman Pozis has a lot of experience in building houses.”

The old man can hardly wait to get to Kitiver’s house in the market.

“Rochele darling,” he calls out every minute, “where is my Sabbath suit?” But Rochele doesn’t answer.

Something happened! A telegram has arrived. The messenger handed it to the sisters through the open window and took off. It’s from Shmiel, the wealthy son. In two days’ time, on his way abroad for the cure, his train will stop briefly at the nearby railroad station and he wants the family to come to see him.

This is surely a portent of good things to come. Suddenly everyone talks at once; a holiday spirit has replaced the usual gloom, and hope has been restored – forever and ever. Shmiel’s telegram must surely be linked to the letter he sent at the beginning of the summer when he invited Zivia to his home. He’s probably bringing someone with him – he can’t be traveling alone.

Rochele’s pained, slightly crossed eyes well up with tears and she is so overcome with emotion that she can only smile and say, “Shmiel! It’s been eight years since we’ve seen you!” And calling out his name, she has the feeling that he’s in the adjoining room.

All the next day the sisters work – they bake ginger cookies, wash handkerchiefs, iron their white jackets. The windows are wide open. The servant-girl watches as Rochele curls her hair and the old man, lying on the couch in the dining room, hears the sisters singing in the back room where they are pressing their clothes, running back and forth between the stove and the table with the hot iron. Yekusiel, inept beadle from the Sadegerer Synagogue, is with the old man.

“Shmiel was a good Hasid, eh, Yekusiel,” he says. “Right after the wedding he went to visit the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now Shmiel is rich – very, very rich.”

Then he becomes thoughtful and silently blinks his sightless eyes, trying to picture what Shmiel looks like now. “He has a beard – he’s sure to have a thick black beard. And he wears kid gloves when he shakes hands with the great lords and landowners with whom he does business, my Shmiel!”

He hardly sleeps at all that night. In the morning, wearing his good coat, he goes out with one of his daughters to the rented coach that is waiting in front of the house. But he doesn’t climb on right away; first he walks around the carriage, touching it here and there – he wants to know if the seats are made of genuine leather. He imagines people from the shtetl standing around on the paved street, watching. Kalman Pozis is going off to meet his son.

“Is there a leather hood?” he asks. “Ah, there is.”

The sisters, wearing their best holiday clothes, pile on all the good things they’ve prepared. They drive around the wide postal road, as excited as if they were going to a wedding. Everything is perfect except for the old man’s constant jabbering. But when they arrive at the station they realize that they set out much too early. They will have to spend a few long hours waiting for Shmiel’s train. Finally it comes. It’s a fast train with reserved seats only. The conductor wears a fancy uniform and has no consideration for the people waiting on the platform. He blows the whistle twice as soon as the train pulls into the station and can hardly wait to blow the third.

“Finished yet? Eh?”

As they rush around the platform they hear a deep, rich baritone voice shouting, “Poppa! Here I am, Poppa, standing near the window!”

A broad-chested young man with a thick black beard and shining, arrogant eyes is standing at the window. It is Shmiel, the rich son. He stretches his hand out toward his father and the old man, excited and shaking like a leaf, feels around with trembling fingers, his cloudy eyes blinking nervously. The sisters take hold of his elbows and guide his arms towards his son.

“Is it Shmiel’s hand?” he asks. “Eh? Shmiel’s hand?”

By now the conductor has blown the whistle for the third time and the train begins to move. The old man keeps tapping the air, as if he were still clutching his son’s smooth kid glove in his hands. Finally he lets his arms down slowly.

They turn to go. The train has left the station and is far away by now, swallowed up somewhere in the furthest corner of the late summer horizon. When they climb into the carriage the sisters search the cabin; they’ve lost a tablecloth full of ginger cookies. But why did they bring the cookies in the first place?

No one says a word in the coach. The horses are tired and move so slowly that the bells around their necks hardly make a sound. But even the faint tinkling gets on Zivia’s nerves and she cries out, “God in Heaven, those bells will drive me mad!” When they get to a wider part of the road she makes the driver stop and remove them.

In the west, over a little wooded area, the sun is about to set. There is a flowing stream in the distance, clear as crystal – pure amber. A short, rosy stripe stretches across the sky and fades in the distance. The sun looks as if it will remain suspended where it is forever, like in Givon.

The old man doesn’t say a word now, heeding his daughters’ warning about his prattling. He blinks his opaque white eyes and smiles into his beard. “Psheh, they think I’m a fool,” he says to himself.

Slowly and silently, without the sound of tinkling bells, they wend their way home. They are eager to be there already – the sooner, the better. No one utters a sound.

Now nothing will ever happen again in the old, neglected house. Next summer, when the thick walls begin to sweat, Zivia will walk around half-dressed and clean all the rooms. She’ll stop eating and drinking and finally take to her bed – and then she’ll sob her heart out. And old Pozis, lying on the sofa in the cool dining room, his narrow, opaque eyes blinking, will engage Yekusiel in conversation. He doesn’t want him to hear Zivia crying.

“The years have passed, eh Yekusiel?”

“They’ve passed, Reb Kalman.”

“They’re gone now, Yekusiel, eh? Not even a shadow is left.”

“Not even a shadow, Reb Kalman – like a dream.”


*This story is taken from: The Short Stories of David Bergelson: Yiddish Short Fiction from Russia, ed. Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press, 1996.

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